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Nuclear Weapons in Europe
December 14, 2011
NATO is conducting a Deterrence and Defense Posture Review to be completed prior to the May 2012
NATO summit that President Obama will host in Chicago. Among other things, the review will consider
what the role of nuclear weapons should be in NATO’s overall military policies and posture.
The good news is that NATO does not now face threats against which it would be necessary or credible
to use nuclear weapons, except if Russia or a future nuclear-armed Iran were to threaten the existence
of an allied state first. The bad news is that NATO’s nuclear weapons are not useful against the threats
that are most likely to arise, such as cyberattacks, energy-supply blackmail, or political subversion. The
underappreciated news is that some states believe nuclear weapons are such a safe and protean asset that they
will protect against a wide range of threats. This belief encourages leveraging the nuclear deterrent to cover
positions that in fact should be backed by real capital in the form of new nonnuclear capabilities and policies.
Rather than a wedding ring that reassuringly symbolizes commitment, as defenders of the status quo argue,
the NATO arsenal of nuclear bombs may be more like the euro. In that case, NATO states should learn from
the euro crisis. While security conditions in Europe remain relatively benign, they should recapitalize their
security commitments and clarify their crisis decisionmaking procedures.
As the West trembles through the euro crisis, NATO is reviewing its “overall posture in deterring and
defending against the full range of threats to the Alliance.” Nuclear weapons figure prominently in this review,
which is to be completed before the NATO summit President Obama is hosting in Chicago in May 2012.
Approximately 200 U.S. “nonstrategic” nuclear bombs are currently deployed under NATO’s aegis in
Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey. The United States built and “owns” these weapons, but
the decision to use them would be made in consultation with the other 27 members of the alliance. Once a
decision is made, the bombs would then be delivered by the host country’s crew (except in the case of Turkey,
where American planes and crews would most likely fly in to carry out the mission). Multinational teams would
perform fueling and other support operations. In this way, the deterrence benefits of these weapons, along
with the moral and physical risks and responsibilities of their potential use, are to
be shared by the alliance.
Proponents of maintaining NATO’s nuclear arsenal liken it to a wedding ring
that symbolizes the alliance’s bond. This analogy was created by a veteran
U.S. defense official, Elaine Bunn, and is invoked frequently in U.S. and
NATO circles. Like rings, NATO’s nuclear weapons symbolize the partners’
commitments to stay together and defend each other in good times and bad. In
addition to reassuring the allies, rings (and nuclear bombs) deter others from
thinking that any one partner is fair game for seduction (or attack). While the
partners’ commitment may be taken for granted over time, when one of them
shows up one day without the ring, the other takes notice, as do neighbors and
colleagues. Wondering ensues: Is the couple in crisis or splitting up? Is there an
opportunity to draw one of the partners away? Because the actions and reactions
that may result from removing the symbol of union—a wedding ring or a
nuclear arsenal—can be destabilizing, it is better to retain it.
Others might ask whether the NATO bombs are more like euros. This analogy
suggests that NATO’s nuclear bombs are not the safe assets they once seemed
to be because they have been highly leveraged for use against a wider range of
potential threats than they can realistically deter. And believing that the safe
value of the nuclear assets can cover a wide range of contingencies, NATO has
not spent the money it should to improve its nonnuclear capabilities. As long
as the possessors of this deterrent and the adversaries who are to be deterred
believe in its strength, the system works. But the moment a cash call comes and
the necessary reserves are not there, cascading panic can occur: just as countries
can’t pay back their credit holders, NATO could lack the resources to cover all
its obligations. To repair the credibility of the deterrent in a crisis, disastrous
nuclear war could be initiated; or a beggar-thy-neighbor debate could occur, as
some members of the alliance would prefer accommodation of the adversary
over potential self-annihilation. As with the euro, it would become obvious that
stronger regulations are needed to prevent such nuclear leveraging and that the
absence of a unitary decisionmaking authority in the alliance renders it unsure
of its ability to safely manage such powerful forces. To avoid such risks, some
argue, it is wiser to remove these weapons and the false reassurance they are
supposed to offer.
Safety in Nukes?
Few argue that nuclear deterrence requires the retention of nuclear bombs
at NATO air bases in Europe. If nuclear strikes were actually required, U.S.
commanders would use invulnerable and more reliable weapons from submarines,
not aging fighter-bombers in Europe. The value of the NATO-based bombs is
primarily to reassure less secure allies that the alliance has the resolve to protect
them. In the words of an American expert speaking at a May 2011 NATO Defense
College workshop in Estonia, NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangements “provide
assurance to Allies that the commitment to collective defense will be realized
in even the most extreme circumstances—and that the U.S. will remain deeply
engaged in Europe.”1
The value of
Of course, as NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept put it, “the circumstances in
which any use of nuclear weapons might have to be contemplated are extremely
remote.” The threats that NATO states face today and in the foreseeable future
do not resemble the scenarios of massive Warsaw Pact invasion that fostered
NATO’s reliance on nuclear weapons in the first place. The Warsaw Pact
dissolved, and its non-Soviet members have joined NATO. Western European
states are more secure from military threat than they have been for centuries.
Yet, new NATO states, formerly part of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact,
do not feel as secure as those farther west. What worries them is not massive
invasion but rather more ambiguous threats from Russia, “such as cyber
attacks, energy cut-offs, and local ethnic unrest to intimidate and even attack
its neighbors.” 2 As veteran NATO experts Hans Binnendijk and Catherine
McArdle Kelleher report, these states are concerned that such threats “would
not reach the Article 5 threshold” calling for active collective defense “or that
NATO decision making and response would be too slow to be effective.” 3
that the alliance
Whatever comfort NATO’s nuclear weapons may provide, in reality it is not
clear how they would or could credibly be invoked to deter or retaliate against
the most likely threats, which are those below the threshold of massive attack.
Initiating the use of nuclear weapons against a nuclear-armed adversary who can
retaliate is credible only if the threat posed by that adversary is of an existential
scale. It would be irrational and incredible to invite nuclear retaliation on oneself
(or one’s allies) if that retaliation would be more destructive than the initial
threat itself. And if the threat facing the alliance was of lesser severity and/or did
not come from a nuclear-armed adversary, using nuclear weapons would not be
necessary, justifiable, or credible.
Nevertheless, senior leaders of Baltic states, Poland, and the Czech Republic
express, usually privately, that retaining these weapons is important to reassure
them. Proponents of nuclear weapons in Washington and NATO headquarters
eagerly amplify these views to resist calls for reducing, let alone eliminating,
the nuclear arsenal. Herein lies a mismatch between capabilities and objectives
that amounts to a moral-strategic hazard. Relying on nuclear weapons to bail
out NATO from positions it has not adequately covered with nonnuclear forces
should not be reassuring.
Learning From the Euro
The euro crisis is instructive. Banks and treasuries in the eurozone financed
loans and expenditures in ways that are now recognized to have been profligate.
They did so on the assumption that eurozone countries collectively were rich
and would continue to grow richer, and that somehow if there were an economic
problem in one state, the others would be strong enough to maintain the
is primarily to
has the resolve
to protect them.
solvency of the system. “Euro-assets” were simply assumed to be safe; holding
them was reassuring. Lonely voices that worried about the absence of a unified
decisionmaking body that could impose fiscal regulations and/or issue and
underwrite zone-wide bonds were dismissed. Requirements to increase capital
reserves relative to loans were not made across the eurozone.
When the financial crisis emerged in the United States in 2008 and cascaded
through Europe, banks and states acted haphazardly and incrementally.
The spread of the turmoil outpaced the reactions of the actors who were
disaggregated and not unified. Greece, on the most endangered end of the
spectrum, moved inadequately due in part to domestic political compulsions.
Germany, on the other end of the capability spectrum, has moved too little too
slowly, also for domestic reasons. Germans understandably denounce Greeks
and others for not saving enough, for not requiring stronger capitalization
requirements for banks, and so on. They ask, “Why should we who have
worked so hard and saved so much have to bail out other people who have not
had the responsibility to invest in the capabilities we have or the wisdom to
act prudently?” The retort, of course, is that German businesses and workers
benefitted enormously from the profligate consumption of their exports and
loans by Greeks and others. Saving the credibility of the euro is necessary to
maintain a strong German economy, whether German voters like it or not.
Nuclear assets may be like euro assets. Europeans (and Americans) assume that
the nuclear bombs on NATO air bases underwrite a deterrent that will work
against an unspecified range of potential threats. NATO members do not face
realistic threats of large-scale invasion of the sort that NATO forces are meant to
deter and defeat. When NATO has acted militarily in recent decades—Bosnia,
Afghanistan, Libya—it was “out of area” on missions beyond the core purpose
of the alliance. But if NATO members did unexpectedly face direct threats, it is
assumed that the deterrent would be strong because nuclear assets are there.
Cautionary voices, such as former secretary of defense Robert Gates, warn that
NATO states have not invested enough in new military capabilities, and have
not coordinated and rationalized procurement policies to make the alliance
an efficient unitary actor. NATO members for years have been reducing
investments in nonnuclear forces that would be suited to deter or defend against
twenty-first-century threats. Even new members of NATO, who express the
greatest insecurities, have resisted calls to end redundancies, divide labor,
coordinate procurement programs, and organize regional multilateral forces.
Like Western European states, they have reduced defense spending and not
invested in critical capabilities identified as recently as the 2010 Lisbon Summit.
In euro terms, NATO is too leveraged. There is too little capital in reserve in
the form of nonnuclear twenty-first-century capabilities to cover the risks if the
credibility of NATO’s deterrent is challenged in a crisis. In 2007, Estonia suffered
a temporarily crippling cyberattack emanating from Russia, though not with
certainty from the Russian state. Four years later it is not clear that NATO agrees
how to deter or counter such threats, or whether it has the capabilities to do so.
Nuclear retaliation is not a viable option.
do not face
invasion of the
sort that NATO
meant to deter
Estonians might expect that nuclear deterrence would be invoked if Russia
moved armored forces to the Estonian border, say, in response to dramatic
maltreatment of the Russian minority, and NATO was not able to move
sufficient conventional military forces to stop the Russians. Such a challenge
to NATO’s deterrent may never happen, just as it was possible that investors
would have never questioned the safety of Italian bonds. But once doubt arises
in the assumed value of the asset, in this case NATO’s portfolio of military
capabilities, self-fulfilling panic can set in. Nuclear weapons may be like the
vaunted “bazooka” that commentators believe could end the euro crisis: the
mobilization of the European Central Bank to back all the credit issued by
banks and governments. If Germans and others have been unwilling, with some
reason, to pull the trigger on the financial bazooka, imagine how much greater
the reluctance would be to detonate nuclear weapons.
NATO states’ refusal to change procurement and operational practices in order
to build twenty-first-century capabilities is akin to banks’ and treasuries’ failure to
increase reserve requirements and impose fiscal discipline before the euro crisis hit.
To believe or hope, instead, that NATO-based nuclear weapons would continue
to do the job is similarly irresponsible. Whatever reassurance may be claimed for
such a position is hollow. Real security requires greater capitalization of defenses
combined with reductions in the threats to which the alliance is exposed.
Doubts About Unity
to which the
The problem of excessive leveraging of nuclear weapons is compounded by
the absence of a single, unified decisionmaking actor. NATO’s nuclear burden
sharing is said to demonstrate the alliance’s solidarity, but the reality is that a
decision to use the nuclear weapons in Europe must be agreed to at least by
the United States and the countries whose bases and crews would be involved
in the operation. During the Cold War, doubts about NATO’s collective
decisionmaking were attenuated by the belief that the threat, if it were enacted,
would be an unmistakable and massive Warsaw Pact attack on Germany,
Europe’s richest and most powerful state. Today’s threats are more ambiguous
and most likely directed against small states whose fates do not directly implicate
the security of the alliance’s largest populations, much like Greece’s economy
alone did not seem to threaten the eurozone. In a crisis, NATO’s collective
decisionmaking process could just as readily produce bitter disagreements,
indecision, half-measures, and delay, much as has occurred in the euro crisis.
The treaty that created the euro included a “no bail-out” clause guaranteeing that
no state would be held liable for the debts of others. Yet, as the euro crisis has
shown, when excruciating decisions have to be made, politics intervene. Germany
is now begrudgingly, haltingly, and perhaps inadequately bailing out Greece, Italy,
and maybe others, contrary to the Maastricht Treaty. This offers a measure of
confidence that powerful states will act in the common good even if action entails
great cost to them—but just a measure. If political exigencies can lead to reluctant
positive improvisations on agreements, as in the euro case, why could they not
stimulate negative improvisations?
NATO has Article V, which runs in the opposite direction of the Maastricht
Treaty by obligating all states to come to the defense of one who has been
attacked. Yet, it is at least plausible that if a state on NATO’s periphery were
subject to a military threat serious enough to motivate that state or the NATO
staff to urge the alliance to signal that nuclear weapons could come into play,
some member states would resist. The mere invocation of a nuclear threat could
cause a split in the alliance. Polities farthest from the “action” could panic at
the prospect of nuclear war. This happened multiple times even during the
Cold War. Early in the Korean War, for example, President Truman insinuated
during a press conference that the use of atomic weapons was “under active
consideration.” British prime minister Clement Attlee immediately rushed to
Washington to press for restraint, and other European leaders echoed this
fearful message. Similar dynamics ensued around the Quemoy and Mazu crisis
with China in 1955.
It is said that retaining the bombs in Europe is necessary to demonstrate the
“coupling” of the United States and NATO, in both directions. U.S.-controlled
bombs in Europe signal the possibility that Washington could respond to an
adversary’s aggression against NATO by using “local” nuclear forces instead of
leaping up the escalation ladder to the use of U.S. strategic forces. The possibility
of confining nuclear use to Europe is supposed to add credibility to the United
States’ willingness to risk nuclear war on behalf of allies. And the willingness
of European NATO states to make themselves potential targets of nuclear
retaliation by hosting these weapons and participating in their potential delivery
is supposed to signal to Americans that the allies share the moral and physical
risks and responsibilities of nuclear deterrence and defense.
However, coupling can run in another, less welcome direction, too. Indeed, rather
than solidifying NATO, the pre-positioned nuclear forces in Europe could tempt
a cynical and somewhat risk-prone adversary to push a crisis just far enough to
provoke someone in NATO to ring the nuclear alarm, betting that the ensuing
reaction would split the alliance and weaken its resolve. Playing cat-and-mouse
this way with nuclear weapons is very risky, but it has been done in the Cold War
in Europe and East Asia, and more recently by Pakistan in crises with India.
For all the
that they would
be able to
on any state
NATO leaders, understandably, are reluctant to discuss scenarios that could raise
questions about the certainty of robust, timely collective decisions to undertake
nuclear war in defense of an ally. But such discussions should not provoke
despair. NATO does not face a crisis now, much like the eurozone in 2008 as
compared to today. The alliance can and should learn from the euro experience.
Indeed, if the euro crisis can be instructive it is irresponsible not to explore
whether and how it might be relevant to security planning. The most obvious
lesson is to act now to build reserves of capability, to correct the overvaluation of
particular assets, and to strengthen the unity and efficiency of decisionmaking.
If economic problems in Europe and the United States make it more difficult
to invest in defense, this possibility should be addressed too. The answer then
would not be to further leverage unreliable assets but rather to focus on reducing
threats. For all the West’s current economic and political hardships, NATO
states have the wherewithal to demonstrate that they would be able to inflict
grave economic, political, and military harm on any state that would attempt to
project military power against them, including Russia and Iran. This can be done
with or without the largely symbolic nuclear bombs now positioned in Germany,
Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, and Turkey.
More constructively, after the upcoming presidential election in the United States
and transition in Russia, NATO and Moscow could act on their shared interests
to concentrate resources on economic reconstruction by alleviating each other’s
military threat perceptions. They could do this through reaffirming mutual
commitments not to project military power across the borders of NATO (in
both directions), backed by corresponding reductions in NATO and Russian
conventional military forces and further reductions in the aggregate totals of U.S.
and Russian nuclear forces. The core imperative is to reassure NATO’s easternmost
members and Russia that their sovereignty will not be undermined. In these trying
political and economic times, the populations of Russia and NATO states would
welcome leaders who manage to cooperate in reducing threats.
The wedding ring analogy may be instructive here in ways that its admirers have
not considered. Spouses do not only remove their rings to enable an affair or
signal a breakup. Occasionally a ring is lost, or a spouse gains weight to the point
where the ring of his youth no longer fits. Pawn shops are full of wedding rings
that have been hawked to gain emergency cash. In any of these situations, the
issue is how the ring’s absence is explained and how the decision to deal with it
is made. Things change and the measure of individuals, couples, and alliances
is how they adapt to that change. Whether NATO prefers to exercise and make
the nuclear ring fit more comfortably or to find other resources to keep its ring
out of hawk, or instead chooses to trade its nuclear weapons for other goods,
the imperative is to have adult conversations about what is realistically best for
the family. In marriage as in economics, when crises arise, wise partners identify
what is vital and work together to save and invest in the bare necessities.
1 David Yost, “Adapting NATO’s Deterrence Posture: The Alliance’s New Strategic Concept
and Implications for Nuclear Policy, Non-Proliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament,”
report on the May 4–6, 2011, workshop of the NATO Defense College, Rome (Tallinn,
Estonia, June 2011).
2 Hans Binnendijk and Catherine McArdle Kelleher, “NATO Reassurance and Nuclear
Reductions,” in Reducing Nuclear Risks in Europe: A Framework for Action, edited by Steve
Andreasen and Isabelle Williams (Washington, D.C.: Nuclear Threat Initiative, 201), 99.
identify what is
vital and work
save and invest
in the bare
George Perkovich is vice president for studies and director of the
Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment. His research focuses on
nuclear strategy and nonproliferation, with a focus on South Asia and Iran, and
on the problem of justice in the international political economy. He is the author
of the award-winning book India’s Nuclear Bomb (University of California Press
2001) and co-author of the Adelphi Paper, Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, published
in September 2008 by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Perkovich
served as a speechwriter and foreign policy adviser to Senator Joe Biden from
1989 to 1990 and is an adviser to the International Commission on Nuclear
Non-proliferation and Disarmament and a member of the Council on Foreign
Relations’ Task Force on U.S. Nuclear Policy.
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